How to write a profile

Photo via Vanity Fair

The profile is one of the most basic and versatile formats of media writing. It can be used to get to know a celebrity or introduce you to the person who delivers your mail.

A profile can take many forms. It could be a 14,000-word article about the president of the United States in Vanity Fair. Or it could be a Facebook photo next to insightful quotes from strangers on the streets of New York.

A traditional profile blends facts, biographical information, quotes and visuals. Then it’s all arranged in a narrative that has a clear beginning, middle and conclusion.

Sometimes inexperienced writers confuse a profile with a bio. But a media profile shouldn’t be the same thing as a Wikipedia entry. It’s not just a bunch of facts in chronological order — it should add up to something more than the sum of its parts.

A good profile gives you something that you can’t get elsewhere to really get to know the person. It could be an illuminating quote. It could explain why the subject does what she does. It could also be a photograph that tells a story all on its own.

Here are suggested elements to construct a profile that is informative, insightful and entertaining.

A compelling introduction

As a writer, your job isn’t to be a stenographer, or someone who simply compiles words verbatim. Instead, your job is to select the most relevant information that tells the most compelling and complete portrait possible. This means that you will start with the most attention-grabbing or relevant information about the person. Let’s say you are writing a profile of an inmate. Here are two ways you could begin your story:

Joe Smith, 48, lives in jail at the Waupun Correctional Institute.

Or

Joe Smith, who is spending his life behind bars for murder, insists that he is innocent.

Which makes you want to read on?

Facts and biographical information

These are your building blocks of your profile. It’s how old they are, what they study or do for a living, where they come from or where they live. This information answers the “what” and “how” of your subject.

You can think of this information as the equivalent of a person’s resume. Often, you can find much of this information out before you sit down to interview someone. You might find it on a LinkedIn page, other articles that have been written about them, or other public information.

This information can be helpful, but that doesn’t mean you need to include all of it in a profile. It depends on your subject. If you’re writing a profile of an NBA draft prospect, it probably makes sense to include the person’s height and weight. But if you’re writing a profile of a CEO, the person’s height and weight is likely irrelevant, but their professional experience could mean a lot.

What makes this person tick

If facts and biographical information make up the person’s resume, then this step is the cover letter. Anyone who has written a cover letter knows that it can be hard to know what to say. But it can also be much more reflective of a person’s personality than the facts on a resume.

To answer this question, you have to dig deep. If the first step answers “what” and “how,” this is the “why.” You have to ask why your subject does what he does, why he lives where he lives, or why he dreams what he dreams. It gets into your subject’s true motivation.

Quotations

To get to know someone, you have to hear that person’s voice. You can accomplish this through direct quotations. A profile is usually a mix of the author’s words and narration interspersed with quotes from the subject.

What makes a good quote? Just putting quotation marks around words your subject says doesn’t mean you have something that’s worth quoting. Factual statements and biographical information should be paraphrased in your own words. But when your subject says something colorful or insightful, you should let that do the talking as a quote.

Examples:

“I grew up in Chicago until I was 18 and then I left for college. I attend Marquette University as a Public Relations major.”

Or

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life until I took an amazing media writing class at Marquette.”

Which sounds more like a quote?

Visuals

A picture can say 1,000 words — but only if accurately reflects your subject. Your profile should include a photo or video that shows your subject engaged in an activity you talk about in your profile, or shows off a central trait of their personality. It shouldn’t just be a LinkedIn profile. It should tell a story in its own right.

How do you get these photos? Ideally, a professional photographer can get high-quality photos during a separate photoshoot or during the course of your reporting. The best media photographers confer with the editors and writers of the profile to see what kind of themes they’re looking for in the accompanying photography.

If you don’t have the means to hire a professional photographer, you still have options. Today, more writers can get photography themselves with their own cameras or iPhones. Finally, if limited time or resources are a consideration, writers can also get submitted photos from their profile subjects. If that’s the case, the profile should note that the photography came from the subjects for the sake of transparency.

A conclusion

A profile shouldn’t end abruptly. It should end with a fact, an observation or a quote that summarizes who this person is, and what the reader has learned about her.

At the end of a well-written profile, you may love the person or hate the person. Those feelings may come out over the course of the profile. But the job of the conclusion is to drive home the point that you at least know this person a little bit better than before.

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